Pickpocketed In Quito

Pickpocketed In Quito

 

After visiting the Middle of the World in the morning, I set off to Quito’s New Town to meet Annie Huang, a friend of a friend studying abroad in Quito who had been introduced to me over Facebook last night.

 

 

Over our spirited conversations over a fantastic lunch consisting of crepes, waffles and ice cream, Annie (who I had a great time getting to know!) at one point casually asked if I had ever been robbed or pickpocketed during my 3-4 years of traveling to over 60 countries. Except for losing my phone once at an internet café in Vietnam, I thought about it and realized that this never had happened to me. I even remarked how fortunate I have been with my possessions, knocking as much wood around me as I could and telling her “now that you made me realize how lucky I’ve been, I feel like it’s going to bite me in the ass soon!” Little did we know.

After lunch, Annie led me to the public buses that would take me to the airport for $2 USD from Rio Coca station.

 

 

And that bus was so crowded, I remember keeping my hand on my iPhone for as long as I could. I then had a weird feeling something was going to go down. It was at that thought a crowd surged out of the bus, shoving me aside and causing me to temporarily lose my grip on my phone in my pocket. And almost immediately afterwards I could literally feel my phone slipping away into oblivion.

I yelled for them to stop, but the crowd had quickly dissipated and the bus immediately pulled away. Even when I was fully aware of what was going on, these pickpocketing magicians had pulled off an impressive act, much at my expense.

Yes, I did consider the irony of the conversation I had with Annie during lunch. And yes, I did silently fume to myself about how careless I was, even as careful as I had been the entire time.

But you know what (I need to hear myself say this)? At the end of the day I’m complaining about a first world problem. I should consider the privilege of even owning an iPhone, the opportunity of being able to travel in the first place, how lucky I have been with my possessions after all the countries I’ve been to, and how I’m still doing okay after all the chaotic travel I’ve done in off the beaten places. And at the end of the day, it’s just stuff. To get upset over something that in the long run will be another funny travel story is useless; we might as well save some time and start laughing about it now, because we will eventually anyway.

But still…damn they were good.

 

Probably the exact moment my iPhone got stolen

 

Unfortunately this would happen right before I had to catch my flight to Lima, which I almost missed as my bus from Rio Coca got stuck in traffic and took about 80 minutes to reach the airport. So I had no time to do anything about my lost phone until about 5-6 hours later when I landed in Lima, Peru.

I would luckily be picked up at the Lima airport by Gabino Chu, who I’ve just met for the first time. He’s an awesome guy born and raised in Peru raised by Chinese immigrants, and who also happened to be heading on my upcoming trip to Cuba! He took me back to my place where I proceeded to spend the next hour getting my amazing girlfriend Mar to contact my cell phone company, erasing my phone remotely via iCloud, and resetting passwords for 60+ email accounts, social media accounts and apps I had on my phone.

Having thoroughly bored Gabino enough, he graciously took me out afterwards to La Lucha Sangucheria, where I had an amazing Asado de Res sandwich and a papaya shake. Afterwards he bought me a round of beers at Ocean’s Lounge, which put me back in the right mood to realize: For f*ck’s sake, I’m traveling and I should be grateful I can do this in the first place!

What a great way to end the night before hopping on a 4:30am flight to El Salvador to catch my flight to Cancun.

Thanks for the dinner and drinks! And see you in 3 days in Cuba, Gabino!

 

 

- At time of posting in Lima, Peru, it was 20 °C - Humidity: 40% | Wind Speed: 24km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy

 

Zero, Zero: Mitad

Zero, Zero: Mitad

0,0 …are the coordinates of a town 30-40 minutes north of Quito, called “La Mitad del Mundo” or “The Middle of the World” where the coordinates are essentially 0 degrees South x 0 degrees West: the exact calculated point (i.e. the equator) where you can cross between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

 

In truth the site has been erroneously constructed 240 feet away from the true equatorial line (thanks to GPS for figuring that out), but it’s still close enough to say that I was able to breakdance in both hemispheres at the same time:

 

The Northern and Southern hemispheres both just got served

 

Before getting there, however, I woke up at 7am this morning to see El Panecillo before the clouds set in. This is the site of where the extraordinary “The Virgin of Panecillo” stands, and it was a quick 10 minute, $3 USD cab ride from Parque Alameda:

 

The Virgin of El Panecillo just got served

 

Everyone recommends that you do NOT attempt to climb El Panecillo hill by foot as the neighborhoods you’ll be walking through can be dodgy (a tourist from my hostel was recently mugged of her purse and passport and stabbed in the leg for resisting). There are also areas on the path where there are little to no sidewalks to walk along, raising the chances of your getting run over by a bus or being choked by diesel fumes from so many vehicles going by. Therefore, the universal advice is: Hail a taxi.

Once you’re there, enjoy the views:

 

 

As for the tourist security in the area…

 

 

For about $1 USD you can enter and climb up to the mid-length of the statue, which opens at 9am:

 

Looking up at the statue

 

Afterwards, we waited about 10 minutes for a cab to arrive at the top of the hill. There we bargained the driver to about $30 USD for him to take us to the “Mitad del Mundo” complex and back into Quito.

After about a 30-40 minute comfortable drive, we arrived at the complex:

 

 

Pay $3 USD for the admission fee:

 

 

And past the gates, walk a bit north towards the equatorial line:

 

 

So one second you’re in the Southern Hemisphere:

 

 

And the next second you’re in the Northern Hemisphere:

 

 

Or you can be in both at the same time:

 

 

- At time of posting in Quito, Ecuador, it was 18 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly clear

 

Alone In Quito

Alone In Quito

 

After yesterday’s goodbyes, I’m alone for the first time and probably for the last time on this trip. I reflected upon the merits of traveling alone in detail a few months ago, also in South America, in The Case for Traveling Solo: It’s just a very different kind of travel. I miss having a group to lead and having more than one pair of eyes to notice things. I miss having to talk about things I’ve seen with other people. But at the same time, there’s a certain type of unique freedom you get by traveling alone, going at your own pace, doing your own thing, and learning to become your own best friend again.

Today I was fortunate to rediscover the feeling in very photogenic Quito, Ecuador, the capital city and an UNESCO World Heritage Site in of itself.

And what an easy place to travel through as a USA citizen: Due to the Ecuadorian government’s “dollarization” of its national currency in 2000 in order to rescue its economy, only the US Dollar is used in Ecuador. You can imagine how this makes it incredibly convenient for USA travelers. Moreover, Ecuador is known for the most “pure form of spoken Spanish” in the world, which means native Ecuadorians speak Spanish slowly and without frills like Argentines or Chileans; I actually can have a normal conversation in Spanish here!

 

 

After arriving in the morning by plane and taking a 40 minute taxi to the city ($28 USD), I freshened up at my hostel in the San Blas district (Hostel Revolution) and started my day at Parque Alameda:

 

The oldest European observatory on the continent

 

From there I walked south towards Quito’s Old Town:

 

Eventually you should orient yourself relative to the Plaza Grande:

 

 

If you have time, go dine at the top floor of Vista Hermosa Restaurant:

 

Afterwards, check out the following buildings surrounding Plaza Grande:

 

Palacio del Gobierno
The Catedral
Centro Culturo Metropolitano
Iglesia de Sagrario

 

The highlight for me (and usually for everybody else) was the architectural elements of La Compania de Jesus:

 

 

From there, walk a few blocks west to explore Plaza San Francisco:

 

 

Walk south a bit and then east to pass by the 18th century Arco de la Reina and the neighboring monastery:

 

 

Keep walking east until you hit Plaza Santo Domingo:

 

She is passed out!

 

At this point I retraced my steps to Plaza Grande in order to check out the interior of the Cathedral:

 

The famous statue of the Virgin of Quito slaying the beast beneath her

Where the bishops all hang out

 

Afterwards I headed north to the Basilica del Voto Nacional:

 

I found an unlocked set of stairs so I climbed them for a better view of the interior:

 

 

If you’re really feeling brave, pay the extra $2 USD to climb rickety spiral staircases and unstable ladders within the clock towers. You’ll be rewarded with stupendous views of the city:

 

 

Go as high as possible:

 

 

Afterwards I headed back to the hostel and made a new friend in a fellow American from Alaska named John. With not even 5 minutes of introductions, we set off for Parque Itchimbia for 360 degree sunset views of Quito:

 

Parque Itchimbia

 

This park closes at 6pm so if you still want to stay in the area to bask in the views and the sunset, find the nearby café/restaurant and you’ll probably have the entire place to yourself:

 

 

Enjoy the views when the city lights up at night:

 

 

And that was my walking tour of Quito in less than 5 hours.

And I just realized I only slept for 6 hours in the last 3 days. Off to bed….zzzzz….

 

- At time of posting in Quito, Ecuador, it was 17 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a

 

Paz Out, La Paz

Paz Out, La Paz

 

From Uyuni via Todo Turismo, our group arrived at 7:30am into La Paz the next morning, underslept and cranky from the worst overnight bus ride of our journey:

 

Don't let their smiles fool you; we were all pretty miserable

 

We did a 10 minute hike to Wild Rover’s Hostel and freshened up for about a few necessary hours before setting off to explore highest elevated capital city in the world of La Paz.

 

Birds along Plaza Murillo
Plaza Murillo
The Presidential Palace
Plaza de San Francisco
Inside Iglesia de San Francisco

 

We checked out a few markets for which La Paz is known:

 

Where the famous "Witches' Markets" would be, selling things like llama fetuses and dried frogs for Aymara rituals...but it was closed for Easter Sunday

 

And then it started to rain and hail.

 

 

So our group rendezvoused back at the hostel and had one final dinner together:

 

 

And then before we realized it, it was time to say goodbye. Our 10 day journey through 5 countries and 11 cities has finally come to an end:

 

 

While some are staying a few extra days in La Paz and others are heading to places like Lima and Panama, I’m  heading to Quito, Ecuador next!

 

- At time of posting in La Paz, Bolivia, it was 11 °C - Humidity: 100% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: rain showers

 

Salar De Uyuni

Salar De Uyuni

 

A dream come true:

Salar de Uyuni just got served on Jun's palm

Salar de Uyuni just got served

 

I’ve been planning to come to Salar de Uyuni for a few years now, as it’s been on possibly every single “Top # Places That You Wouldn’t Believe Exist On This Planet” (or some variation). However, it has been no easy task. As all 11 of us immediately struggled with severe symptoms of altitude sickness upon arrival at the airport, we pushed through and hailed cabs from the airport to the bus terminal (60 bolivianos per cab).

FYI: When hailing a cab in La Paz, make sure you settle the tab before getting in the car and make sure it has a yellow sticker and 4 numbers on the top of the cab, otherwise you might be taking a risk in getting into a illegitimate car and having all your stuff stolen at gunpoint (no lie…happened to my friend!).

 

At the Todo Turismo office by the Bus Terminal, we then received our pre-booked tickets ($35 USD) for the overnight bus to Uyuni. And having an hour to kill before our bus left, we explored the general area by the La Paz Bus Terminal, most notably Calle Comercio:

View of La Paz from the Bus Terminal

Calle Comercio at night


A few of the people in our group managed to snag great deals for legit-looking North Face jackets (obviously knock-offs but at a great quality nonetheless) for $20 USD a jacket:

 

We then had some amazing fried chicken and chicken noodle soup at a corner mom and pop shop nearby:

 

 

Bolivia wasn’t any kinder to us after that. From a 9pm departure from La Paz to our 8:30am arrival in Uyuni the next morning, hardly any of us could sleep on the overnight Todo Turismo bus. It was as if the vehicle had no shock absorbers or was made out of rocks. Either way it was 11 hours of riding through an earthquake.

Upon arrival at Uyuni, we were groggily picked up by a rep from Al Extremo Tours (which I had organized by Kanoo Tours: They are your only option if you want to pre-book anything internationally beforehand). They then led us through the town of Uyuni to their office on the main road:

The town of Uyuni

 

Waiting for us at the Al Extremo offices were two 4×4 WD that promptly picked us up at 10:30am and drove us about 20 minutes to the nearby Train Cemetery, a graveyard of trains that used to carry miners and minerals up and down Bolivia many decades ago:

 

Afterwards, it was another 30 minute drive to the town of Salar:

 

 

…from where we drove into the middle of the salt flat itself, Salar de Uyuni:

 

Formerly a giant prehistoric lake, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, and a big giant white desert like you wouldn’t believe with your own eyes:

 

The main spot to congregate in Salar de Uyuni is the Incahuasi Island, a stark piece of land jutting out in a sea of white.

It takes about 45 minutes to drive there from the edge of the salt flat:

 

This is where we spent 2 hours taking it all in:

Flamenco for lunch

 

Because Salar de Uyuni is essentially a giant expanse of whiteness with nothing to give any sort of depth of perception, there are a lot of fun things you can do with your camera here:


 


 



Simply put, this is just a great place to chill out:

 

Salar de Uyuni just got served

Salar de Uyuni just tried to get served

 

At around 3:30pm, we headed back to Uyuni for dinner:

 

 

After having dinner at the famous Minutemen’s Pizza joint in Uyuni (located inside Hotel Tortoni…highly recommend!), we headed back to the Todo Turismo office to catch our 8pm overnight bus back to La Paz, which was worse the second time around. Just imagine riding through two 11-hour earthquakes in one day…

 

Worker's Memorial in Uyuni

 

- At time of posting in Salar de Uyuni, it was 12 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Leaving For La Paz

Leaving For La Paz

Feeling a little dizzy from the altitude sickness that everyone experiences in La Paz, so I’ll make this entry as straightforward as possible…

The 11 of us woke up at 5:30am this morning in Valparaiso and pre-booked 3 cabs to pick us up from the hostel for the bus terminal:

 

 

Paid about 2400 Chilean pesos ($4.50 USD) per person for the 2 hour bus ride to Santiago via Tur Bus. Left at 6:46am and got there 8:35am:

 

 

There I had my friend from Richmond, VA — Julie Bravo — meet us for breakfast! She’s doing a study abroad here for the year at Universidad de Catolica on Latin American studies, so I figured, why not meet up if we’re in the area?

 

 

Afterwards we hopped on a 1700 Chilean Peso ($2 USD) Tur-Bus for the airport, which took about a breezy 30 minutes. Then we got on our LAN flight and flew to Iquique for a brief stopover:

 

View over Santiago

Landing in Iquique, Chile

 

At Iquique, we were asked to get off the plane to go through immigration formalities exiting Chile:

 

 

Then we reboarded the same plane for La Paz. The whole process took about 45 minutes:

 

La Paz Immigration Control

 

Once arriving into La Paz after 45 minutes in the air, almost everything started to go wrong:

  1. La Paz is the highest capital city in the world, and its El Alto Airport is the highest international airport in the world at over 4000m (11,000ft) above sea level. So all 11 of us immediately started to feel severe symptoms of altitude sickness the moment we got off the plane: light-headedness, dizziness, headache, etc. Some of our lips have turned purple.
  2. They didn’t have enough immigration visa forms for us to fill out so we ended up waiting an hour for them
  3. They took only USD cash for the visa ($135 USD) which many of us didn’t have
  4. When trying to get money out of the ATMs for the visa (which was on the other side of the airport), one of them ate Shanika’s card
  5. Karthik realized he left his memory card (that has all his photos of the trip) back in Chile

On the bright side, their airport has free (and FAST) wifi! Here’s hoping that the rest of our stay in Bolivia gets better.

 

- At time of posting in La Paz, it was 9 °C - Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 9km/hr | Cloud Cover: haze